Rising Cost of College Tuition and Student Debt in Texas—the Rest of the Story

This week Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick held a press conference to decry rising costs of public higher education for Texas families since the Legislature delegated tuition-setting authority to the universities and colleges nearly 15 years ago. Patrick spotlighted data showing tuition and fees have gone up 147 percent since 2002 while median household income of Texans rose only 32 percent over the same span.

Patrick suggested that universities and colleges have done a poor job of cost containment since they gained authority to set tuition rates under the Legislature’s deregulation policy. The lieutenant governor’s proposed solutions included cutting administrative costs and requiring higher-education institutions to meet state-set efficiency targets in order to receive state funding.

While it’s always a good idea to look for more efficient ways to deliver a college education, there’s another side to the cost-increase story that Patrick leaves out. For instance, since 2002 the state’s own funding per college student has gone down 27 percent when adjusted for inflation, according to independent media analysis. And even before the Legislature transferred tuition-setting (and the blame for higher rates) to the universities and colleges, “the Legislature had been slowly starving universities” of needed funding, as an Austin American-Statesman editorial put it. ADallas Morning News analysis found that tuition rates went up even faster in the years before deregulation than after. And a big factor in soaring student debt is the shift in costs from state to students via tuition increases.

There’s also another side to the story of efficiency-based funding. This notion can too easily turn into an excuse for inadequate funding based on arbitrary metrics for completion of college credit hours and graduation timelines that don’t take into account the challenges students face—especially students at community colleges who are studying while holding down jobs and trying to make up for shortcomings in college and career preparation. If the metrics used for performance funding are inappropriate, this type of funding criterion ironically can result in putting fewer state resources exactly where more resources are needed.

To quote the American-Statesman again:  The will to “invest significant state money into higher education” is “a critical missing piece of the tuition-crisis equation.” Texas AFT will be working in the next legislative session to make sure lawmakers address all aspects of the rise in tuition costs and student debt, including the shortfalls in state funding.